Seven years into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals: How are we doing?

All the sustainable development goals are interconnected, and a change in one goal will create both intended and unintended consequences on other goals.

In September 2015, under Danish chairmanship, the United Nations General assembly unanimously adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Succeeding from the eight Millennium goals from the 2000s, the SDGs touch on all aspects of global society (Figure 1). 

The 17 goals, consisting of 169 targets and 231 unique indicators, provide the global community with guidance through a sustainability roadmap from 2016-2030. The large number of targets and indicators seems daunting, leading individuals to question whether the goals are “achievable”. These 17 goals have been simplified and grouped into 5 achievable pillars (Table 1).

PeopleEnd poverty in all forms and ensure dignity and equality1, 2, 3, 4, 5
PlanetProtect our planet’s natural resources and climate for future generations6, 12, 13, 14, 15
ProsperityEnsure prosperous and fulfilling lives in harmony with nature7, 8, 9, 10, 11
PeaceFoster a peaceful, just, and inclusive society16
PartnershipImplement the agenda through a solid global partnership17

Table 1: The 5 Pillars of the SDGs

As we approach the end of 2022, we are at the midway point of the SDGs’ implementation. It is, therefore, worth asking whether we are still on track to meet the initial targets that were set. To better understand how we are tracking progress, we must first differentiate between sustainable development and sustainability. Sustainable development is the path and journey we take, while sustainability is the final outcome. 

The Sustainable Development Goals

Every year, a report on the status of the sustainable development goals is published. The content of the report tracks the status of the SDGs for every country, as well as specific trends on a select few countries. Recently, myself and colleagues at Awareness Center Denmark reported on the status of the goals by 2020. We have summarised the 2022 version of the Sustainable Development Report in Figure 2, which represents the heat map of the world’s current progress, and Table 2, which provides links to the status reports of different countries.

Figure 2. State and trends for selected groups of countries
East and South AsiaE_S_Asiahttps://www.focus-economics.com/ESA_Sample_Report
Eastern Europe and Central AsiaE_Euro_Asiahttps://ilo.org/moscow/countries/lang–en/index.htm
Latin America and the CaribbeanLAChttps://www.worldometers.info/geography/how-many-countries-in-latin-america/
Middle East and North AfricaMENAhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MENA
OECD membersOECDhttps://oecd.org/about/
Small Island Developing StatesSIDShttps://www.un.org/ohrlls/content/list-sids
Sub-Saharan AfricaAfrica
Low-income CountriesLIChttps://g2lm-lic.iza.org/call-phase-iv/list-of-lic/
Lower-middle-income CountriesLMIChttps://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/middle-income-countries
Upper-middle-income CountriesUMIChttps://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/middle-income-countries
High-income CountriesHIChttps://worldeconomics.com/Regions/High-Income-Countries/

Table 2. Grouping of countries

The heat map in Figure 2 provides a visual dashboard that summarises the current trends of each of the 17 SDGs without overwhelming the reader. The X axis shows the SDGs and the Y axis further breaks down the analysis based on regions. The progress trends are colour-coded in green, yellow, orange, red, and grey, representing Goal Achievement, Challenges remain, Significant challenges, Major challenges, and Insufficient data, respectively. Additionally, there are corresponding arrows ↑, ➚, →, and ↓, which refer to On track or maintaining achievement, Moderately Increasing, Stagnating, and Decreasing respectively.

Overall, the results from the heat map highlight that we are still relatively on track. However, more work needs to be completed in SDGs 14, 15 and 16, as the majority of statuses are red.

Additionally, the regions of Africa, low income countries (LIC) and lower-middle-income Countries (LMIC) are also falling behind when the greyed out missing data is included.

It must be noted that the results provide an overview of each entire country. These results are averaged out over an entire population, and more work needs to be done to understand the differences within each country.

Additionally, each country may use different metrics to assess progress, which has been highlighted in the United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP27, meeting held in Egypt on the 18th of November, 2022.

Tracking the SDGs

For this study, we used a partial order methodology to track the performance of the 17 goals simultaneously. The method left out countries where data was not available for all 17 SDGs.

The result of this analysis demonstrated that East and South Asia (E_S_Asia) and the LIC are regions that are most compliant with the SDGs. Surprisingly, the high-income countries (HIC), fell to the bottom of the list. Furthermore, by looking specifically at the trends (the arrows), the LMIC and E_S_Asia now occupy the top positions, whereas HIC and LIC occupy the two lowest positions. LIC that are ranked at the bottom of the list may not be a surprise due to a lack of funding. Conversely, the HIC, despite their wealth, are unable to act on their commitments, leading to a poor ranking. This is an unexpected finding.

The 17 SDGs are not just guidelines for our planet’s future development; they are the key framework for every country, region, district, company, organisation, and individual, securing the progress, prosperity, and the survival of our planet. It is important to also emphasise that all these goals are interconnected, and a change in one goal will create both intended and unintended consequences on other goals. 

Tourism is a great example that demonstrates the interconnectedness of SDGs. In 2016, 18% of Thailand’s GDP was directly linked to tourism, with over 38 million people visiting the country, underpinning SDG 8 on economic growth. However, the onset of COVID-19 led to a reduction in tourism, further resulting in a deterioration in SDG 8 as well as SDG 1 (poverty), but improved SDG 13 with lower carbon emissions. This was the result of decreased flights in and out of Thailand.

The general consensus is that all goals are equally as important. However, we must be aware of how these goals are currently being weighted, as different methods of calculation can lead to different results. We would like to encourage governments and private institutions to be aware of these differences as they continue improving the current status of the SDGs. 

Additionally, we want to promote the holistic view of addressing the SDGs, as an improvement in one goal can lead to an improvement in multiple other goals. This is exemplified in the Danish company, Chr. Hansen, which won the world’s most sustainable company award. A key player in the food and pharmaceutical industry, this company cultivated food compounds from plants, enabling them to address SDGs 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well-being), and 12 (responsible production and consumption). 

On a final note, we would like to promote what we believe are the four most important SDGs for future research: 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and 17 (partnerships for the goals). SDG 4 is fundamental to our future development; SDG 5 promotes greater contribution from all individuals regardless of sex; SDG 16 emphasises the importance of governance in establishing peace; and SDG 17 promotes critical partnerships between institutions to make all other goals achievable.

Dr Carlsen has more than 40 years of experience in R&D, technical support, and training activities within the environmental field ranging from studies on nuclear waste disposal and chemical weapons to risk
assessment of organic xenobiotics. His current research interests include areas like Sustainability, The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, model tools, and development and application of multi-criteria data analysis tools with a special focus on environmental assessment and in social science.